Little Deviant Kid Stuff
An Interview with Keith Knight
Keith Knight is all over the place. Any comprehensive title for him would be machine-gunned with hyphens — he’s a rapper in the “semi-conscious” hip-hop band the Marginal Prophets; he’s done single-panel political cartoons for Africana.com and sports cartoons for ESPN: The Magazine; and he’s abused the format of the autobiographical cartoon in every conceivable manner in his weekly strip The K Chronicles. He’s taught classes in media literacy, and continues to be an active board member for several worthy organizations, including the Just Think Foundation, San Francisco’s Cartoon Art Museum, and 826 Valencia, the writing center for kids that grew out of McSweeney’s. On top of that, he’s also a world-class self-promoter. He’d be insufferable if he weren’t so self-deprecating and funny.
His most characteristic work is probably The K Chronicles, which sometimes takes potshots at the political issues of the day, but mostly presents liberally embroidered mock-heroic exploits from Keith’s own life. The subject might be a visit with family, or the array of novel bath products his new wife has imported into the house, or a report from the road with the Marginal Prophets. The one thing you can be sure of is that he’ll go out of his way to present himself as a slob, a mooch, a romancer of sheep, and worse. He’ll never let vanity get in the way of a good shaggy dog story.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Keith Knight a few months ago, after his latest K Chronicles collection came out — since then he’s had another book out, The Beginner’s Guide to Community-Based Art. (His website, www.kchronicles.com, has details of his projects and products.) But the best way to catch him is on tour — you not only get the pictures (via slideshow), you get the man himself in his native element, telling stories and making shit up off the top of his head.
Do you consider yourself a political cartoonist?
A political cartoonist? Um… nah. I just consider myself a cartoonist who deals with politics, sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly.
So it’s that politics interests you, and then gets folded into the strip?
Yeah. I don’t want to be known as a straight political cartoonist. That way, people will dismiss it as, “Well, I don’t read political cartoons.” I’d rather keep people guessing from week to week what it’s going to be about. I don’t want to do the same thing — political political political — every time. I just don’t want to whack it over the head. I get sick of it.
Sick of political cartoons?
Yeah. There’s so much bad stuff going on [laughs] that it’s like: “Lemme take a break for a little bit.” Otherwise it’d just drive me crazy. I’d just get really depressed.
When you deal with political material, is it a form of venting, for your own psychological balance — or do you think there is a way that you enter the political dialogue, and maybe affect things?
There’s a lot of stuff that makes me really mad, and I can’t draw out of anger. It wouldn’t be anything interesting. But if I come up with a concept about it ... I just did one about the idea that we’re “turning a corner.” Everybody always says “we’re turning a corner” in the war in Iraq, and I’m thinking: “They say that every time.” So I have Bush at different dates, and he’s peeking around something that looks like a flag. And he goes around it, saying “we’re turning a corner,” “we’re turning a corner” — and in the end, there’s a wide shot of him peeking around a flag-draped coffin, and he’s going “Oh, coffins have a lot of corners.” If I can come up with a good idea like that, sure, but otherwise I’d just draw myself going “Fuck you!” If I did it out of anger, I’d just have a drawing of my character screaming “Are we fucking stupid? Are we a bunch of fucking idiots?” I would probably just be arrested.
But obviously there are things you draw about that piss you off. Do you let those issues roll around in the back of your mind until you find a way to unlock them, or do you not even go there? An image just hits you as a cartoon image, or a funny image, and that’s where you start from ...
Yeah, I roll it around in my head and hopefully an image will come out. An example of that is the “41 Shots” strip [about Amidou Diallo]. The day the cops got off for it, I went home and I drew the strip, with a little girl asking a cop “How many shots does it take for four white officers to defend themselves against an unarmed black male?” Then the rest of the panels are just 'blam blam blam blam’ [41 times] and the cop comes back and says “41.” The little girl goes “Isn’t that a little excessive?” and then I left the final panel open, because I didn’t know what to do. I was angry. And I sat on it for a day, that’s when I came up with “Listen, you folks wouldn’t get into these situations if you’d just lighten up.” So I guess it’s just patience, to let it roll around in your head for a little while. I make sure I only do one political cartoon out of four strips. Maybe two within four, but generally not two in a row. 'Cause I like to mix it up with the K Chronicles. (Th)ink [Knight’s other regular strip] can be a little different, but for the most part, I’ll mix things up — you know, a race issue, a government or Bush issue, to just some weird one.
A sex with sheep issue ...
A sex with sheep issue, right.
Now about the autobiographical strips you do. When I first saw your strip, it was probably… how long have you been doing this?
Eleven years. Eleven ... long ... years.
So I think I saw it close to when you were starting it — it was running in the Pacific Sun for a while. One thing that I liked about it, was that there was a lot of autobiography in alternative comics of the time, but you had a unique take on it. You weren’t revealing these terrible things about yourself — that sort of exhibitionism wasn’t part of it. You were tweaking the autobiography. Half of a strip you would think was true, and then in the other half, you were obviously making things up. The “true” part was just a launching pad. I’m curious if you took that route as a reaction against the autobio stuff that was going on.
That’s interesting that you say that. The one thing that I really wasn’t into [in alternative comics at the time] was the autobiographical stuff. It was all about the miserable, lonely single male — I won’t say white — [sotto voce ] but they were all white. They were just depressed, angst-ridden… yeah, it was kinda irritating. I always saw the K Chronicles as the guy you meet in a bar, and he tells you some weird story, and you don’t know whether it’s true — whether to believe it or not. Something happens, and then you go “It’d be really funny if THIS happened, or THAT happened.” Some of my favorite strips are like that. One time I flew home back to Boston to surprise my mom, and I thought “What would happen if I hid in the house, to kinda scare her, and my aunt was there — her sister’s total hard core, my Aunt Mary — and what would happen if she had a bat and cracked it across my skull?” Because it’s cartoons, you can do that. You can die every week and come back the next week. I always thought that was far more interesting, because the medium allows you to do that. People won’t sit there and go, “Ah, that didn’t really happen.” They won’t question it. I always say when I teach kids — you can have a cat that drinks coffee and eats lasagna, and no one will sit there and go “That’s not real.” Take advantage of what you’ve got. So you’re right; it’s nice that you said that. A lot of people respond to the work by saying that it always feels optimistic. And that’s nice because I’m an optimistic guy.
One thing I’d like to touch on is your sense of getting involved — it’s something you don’t just talk about, but something you actually do. It seems you’re really involved locally.
Yeah, well, believe me, any chance I can toot my own horn, I’ll do it. [laughs] More than anything else, we live in these neighborhoods, in these communities, and to get involved — it’s such a healthy thing. If I just sat and drew — did my comic and complained about everything and didn’t do anything — I’d jump off a bridge, man.
You’re involved with the Cartoon Art Museum, you’re involved with 826 Valencia, you speak in classrooms about media literacy — what am I missing there?
Just Think Foundation is this media literacy foundation I’m on the board of, where I work with young people and teach them media skills — how to critically analyze the media. That’s how we’re getting duped, really, is through the media. It’s something that is taught in schools in Australia and Canada, to critically look at the media: how it’s constructed and how it’s used to make people think a certain way. And here in the States, the government should be making that a priority, but that goes against everything that ...
That it’s being used for.
Yeah — God forbid, we can’t teach everybody about the media.
So when you do one of these presentations, what are the sorts of things that you cover?
It depends. Obviously I use my comics. I do slideshows where I’ll show the strips frame by frame and read them, and talk about how I use comics to get issues out. Then I’ll just drop in anecdotes about the media: how media is extremely accessible and we can all make it. That’s why really I urge people to make their own media, and to understand why, say, people use shaky camera sometimes, or why they make certain actors come off like they’re regular Joes on the street. Why is the government making their own newscasts and then sending them to stations to run? Why do they embed reporters in Iraq?
Do you find the kids think this is new, or are they pretty savvy about it?
I think they’re savvy about it, they just never knew there were names for all these things. “Media literacy” — that’s something they’ve never heard. I haven’t done it in a while, but I spent a whole half year working in a class, doing all these different exercises — I was doing it during an election year too, so there was a lot of political stuff [to talk about]. I was getting them to be aware of newspaper ads, getting them to be aware of media. The first things they always say [when you ask them to identify media] are television and newspapers. And then you ask: “What are other types of messages?” And you start them thinking about the internet, about these postcard mailers, junk mailers, flyers, stuff like planes with the ads hanging off them — once they realize that even the stuff that they’re wearing is a form of media, it really makes them start to think. “Wow, I’m paying a hundred fifty buck to advertise this or that — why do I like these sneakers so much? Because they paid someone I admire millions of dollars to wear the sneakers.” I talk about me being in a band, me being in a rap group and breaking it down: how much it costs to create CDs, and what kind of contracts there are, the fact that record companies are basically loan sharks. When they sign you to a deal, they’re giving you money that you have to pay back for video, production, advertising, all that stuff. That has to be recouped before you make a dime. I talk about how important it is to support independently produced work. It’s fun and interesting and kids are a lot smarter than you and me think. A lot smarter.
How are you supporting yourself nowadays? Is it just the music and the cartoons?
Not the music. The music sucks away money. Definitely the comics. It’s a combination of the two different comics, (Th)ink and The K Chronicles, running in various newspaper and magazines and websites.
How many papers carry you?
I’d say probably about thirty. It hovers right around there at this point. A little more with The K Chronicles. I’m always getting more inquiries. I also do a strip that runs occasionally in ESPN: The Magazine, and I’m just starting up with Mad magazine, so I’m pretty excited about that.
Did you read Mad as a kid?
Well, y’know, not all the time. The troublemaking kid had Mad magazine. Mad magazine is like an early version of porn. The bad kid had it. “Check this out, man.” And then you see it and you’re like “Wow…” It’s deviant. Little deviant kid stuff. The editors at Mad will probably see this interview and say “You’re not gonna run in our magazine now.”
But that’s what they have to count on, right? That there’s a little bit of edge to it. I don’t know if it’s true nowadays, that the kids are swapping Mad magazine on the playgrounds ...
Probably three-year-olds read it now. Smoking cigarettes. What else? I get money from sales of books, freelance gigs, and speaking at colleges, stuff like that. It comes from all over the place, y’know? But it all has to do with my work.
I remember focus groups, at one point ...
Oh yeah — back in the day. Now if you wanna talk about back in the day, yeah. When I first started, [the money would be coming from] everywhere. I worked at the youth hostel, and did focus groups often. I had three different focus-group type things. If I had more time, I woulda done those, where you go in a college experimental thing…
You mean like the medical testing?
Yeah, yeah. Y’know whatever, I would do whatever.
It seemed like you had the focus group thing figured out — how often to go ...
Yeah, it was a good rotation; I was really good at reading what they wanted [for their groups] — “Oh yeah, I drive a Hummer, sure.” It was good money. Sometimes you’d walk in — and first of all they always had great food. Walkin’ in and there’s all these sandwiches and so on. And it would be some sort of trial thing, and no one ever wants black people on the trial, so they would always tell me “We don’t need you.” They’d just give me the check. I’d walk in, get a sandwich, they’d give me the check and I’d leave.
Now wait — they had these for trials?
They had mock trials. Say there’s a company that might get sued, or they wanna challenge something. Before they actually do it, they take it to a focus group, and they get twelve rented jurors ...
And see if the arguments they’re gonna make are going to hold water.
And they don’t want black people because they figure they’re going to get weeded out of the jury pool?
Exactly. You know, it might be a case that’s against someone black, it might be against someone poor, it might be some corporation that’s dicking over somebody — and y’know, “Can’t have black folks on the jury” — so I’d go in and get a sandwich, take the money and walk away. I get calls every once in a while still, but I haven’t done one in a long time. I did one once, where it was all guys, and they were asking all these sex questions. I swear I was dumbfounded by some of the answers. I was a moron, too. Everybody was talking about these things…this one guy was talking about how this one woman, I don’t know what she was doin’ to him, but right before he was about to go, she stuck her finger up his ass. And people were like [conciliatory tone] “It’s okay, man, it happened to me too.” And he was like: “I liked it.” [laughs] And then another guy was admitting this weird party date rape thing — it was really bad, I was thinking “Oh my God.” They seriously got every type of guy you could possibly imagine. People who would never hang out in the city together and talk to each other like that. When everyone was leaving people were saying, “Wow man, it was great just kinda sitting around talking like that, hearing your point of view and everything, we should hang out sometime.” “Yeah, yeah!”
A real bonding experience.
Yeah, right. Then I never heard from anyone ever again. The next week I was someplace and this woman I knew — I didn’t know it at the time, but she worked for that focus group; she was behind the two-way mirror. She told me: “I have never seen a bigger bunch of idiots in my life.”
Did you know — was it for some product, or ... ?
It was just attitudes about sex, I guess. It was really weird. But seriously, people were saying things like “I don’t wear condoms, cause the girls I sleep with look clean.” Stuff like that.
That will eventually be a comic.
I’m surprised you haven’t got around to it.
Well it’s funny, cause I always tell people, bring a notebook and write it all down. Write all of this stuff down. I don’t even have a notebook right now, and I’m writing it on this (napkin) and it ends up somewhere, lost. People remind me of ideas all the time, in conversation. I was just doing a slideshow the other night, and this guy came up to me and said: “Hey man, I watched Monday Night Football with you once.” And it was when Dennis Miller was on and Rush Limbaugh too. This guy tells me “You had a great idea. You were wasted and started ranting about how they could make Monday Night Football really cool.” And so here’s the idea — screw all these famous people; all they have to do is get a local fan, a local hardcore fan, let him in the booth, give him a six-pack, and have him watch the game. Have him on a five-second delay, but have this guy loose in the booth, with all the food there, all the beer, and watch him slowly deteriorate, yelling about his team. And you’ll have a local angle — there would be so many people who would be excited to watch this guy. A different guy every week — whoever. And it wouldn’t cost them anything. They’d be happy; just give em a six-pack.
So you’d forgotten that idea.
I’d forgotten that idea. And Monday Night Football is just moving to ESPN, so now’s the time to mention it. I think I might do something on that really soon.
I was wondering: your latest book, it seems like the new element that’s there is talking about your marriage.
I was wondering how much you play it up — the fact that you’re not supposed to do strips about your wife, that she disapproves. Since you’ve done several, I imagine you’re playing that up a little bit.
The first strip I did, I knew she was gonna be pissed. We had discussions about it beforehand. She was like, “You don’t have to say that you’re married, you can just go on being single in your strip.” But I said “How can I do that? How can I write about “Oh yeah, I was going out hoping to get laid tonight?” I can’t do that. It’d be a joke. So I have to introduce you, I have to put you in there.” I knew exactly the way she was gonna react, so in that first strip I had her with sharp teeth and she’s yelling: “Don’t put me in the strip!” And of course she reacted exactly like that when she saw it. She came in and she was completely pissed because I drew her with sharp teeth, and she thought that’s the way I would draw her the whole time. She was freaked out. But I told her “You married into this. You gotta understand, I do this with everybody in the family.” And then the next strip I did, I drew her nice. She just wanted to make sure it wouldn’t be this one-sided thing. So, yeah. Now I don’t tell her when she’s in it. But she usually hears it from somebody else. Just as long as no one comes up to her and says “Are you really evil like your husband says,” she doesn’t feel bad. So I give somebody five bucks at a convention to say something nice to her, make her feel okay.
She was at APE [Alternative Press Expo] with you.
Yeah, the second day.
Is the comics thing something that is outside her realm of usual interest?
Yes and no. She loves going there, she loves San Diego.
For a civilian in San Diego, it could be terrifying, I’d think.
She really does get into it. She gets a guide, looks at all the panels, circles stuff. She really gets into it, cause there’s so much there. She definitely embraced it. It coulda went either way. She likes Craig Thompson, of course, and Tom Beland…there’s stuff she’s totally into. She’s an illustrator, she’s doing her own greeting cards; she’s just not into sitting behind the table at a convention, putting in the hours that I put in, standing around there. It’s all good. She was into comics in Germany before I met her. Not heavily into it, but she’d get Kleines Arschloch, “The Little Asshole.” She’d get those books for her brother. She was halfway there. I just had to drag her kicking and screaming the rest of the way.
I’m wondering about your style, your actual drawing style. You’re kind of self-deprecating about it. The cartoonist that your style reminds me of a bit is Milt Gross.
Milt Gross ... I’ve heard the name ...
He did Count Screwloose, and he did a bunch of these Yiddish dialect novels that he illustrated as well. Dave’s Delicatessen was another strip; he was a strip cartoonist in the 20s and 30s. His style wasn’t a polished style at all, but it was funny. It’s not slick, but it’s humorous. And I don’t know how much of this is deliberate on your part — you present your material in a very unpretentious way. Slicking it up might not serve it that well. So how much of that is a deliberate choice, and how much of it is: “That’s the way I draw, so that’s the way it’s gonna be”?
Uh ... yeah ... I don’t know how to frame that. I’m — y’know — I’m a slob. That’s my thing. I’m a slob. I remember when I first started out, I decided “I don’t wanna use Zip-a-Tone, I don’t wanna use any greytones…” I was looking around, making sure there were artists out there that did just use black line. Crumb used it, and there were a bunch of others out there whose names I can’t think of right now… I enjoy making the frames by hand, and not using a ruler. I use a ruler to pencil it out the borders, but then I make sure I ink it by hand, to make sure it’s a little sloppy.
You didn’t want to use Zip-a-Tone just because you thought it would be a pain in the ass?
Yeah, all that stuff — it would just be a real pain. Seriously, when I was starting out the strip, I thought: “I don’t want to be obscure. I don’t want it to be really hard to understand my strip.” I want for the common man — which is me — I want him to be able to sit there and understand what I’m talking about. I guess I didn’t want it to be too detailed, not a whole lot of backgrounds.
So you’d want people to identify — as if that the strip is something they could do. Not necessarily something that they’d do themselves, but in the zone of that ...
Yeah , something that they could relate to.
It’s the fat Oprah effect, right? When she loses weight, fewer people watch the show — because she’s an authority figure.
Well, that’s what I read somewhere. When she gains weight, more people watch, and the theory, supposedly, is that people identify. They’re identifying with someone as opposed to seeing somebody as an authority figure.
That’s a great name for a band. The Fat Oprah Effect.
So the more slick you are, the more of an authority figure you are.
Yeah, that could be it.
But you’ve never been tempted to say to yourself, “Well, maybe I’ll get a little feathering in there”?
No. Well, in this project that I’m working on that’s coming out in the fall — it’s this book project I’ve been working on for five years — it’s a bit cleaner. A bit slicker, but no too much slicker. And I don’t mind doing that for certain things. I guess it depends on the project. I really like the loose style. If you look in my sketchbook, it’s just a mess. That’s where I do my best work. It’s kinda like playing tennis. When you’re playing tennis, and you’re just hitting with somebody — you’re not worried about points, you can hit it out and nobody’s gonna get pissed; in fact you can even go for the ones that are out just to keep the game going. I think that’s when most people are at their best, because there’s nothing on the line. When you have to play a real game, I think there’s a certain tension — you suddenly start holding back. I try to keep it as loose as possible when I’m doing the strips. It really translates well. When I feel like: “Ah, this looks great,” that’s when I have the most fun.